Messiaen – Music, Life and Times


by: Jean-Marc Warszawski

Messiaen is a composer whose personality, intellectual power and musical genius have always fascinated me. I was deeply moved by his music when I first heard it some twenty years ago, and since then I have been researching his life and works. The Needles of the Night (Les aiguilles de la nuit) is the result of this long process of investigation.

I am very grateful to those who have helped to make this project possible, namely: my wife Gloria, my children Julie and Vincent, my parents, my sister Catherine and her husband Frank, all the people at The Messiaen Society UK (particularly Peter Hill), Dr Roger Nichols, Dr Gayle Sherwood Magee, Bruno Serrou and Michael Birchall at Brepols publishers, and many others whom I will thank individually later.

Messiaen’s fascination for the avifauna of the planet was always there but it really took off in 1929 when he exchanged his flat in Paris for a cottage at Petichet, near Avignon. In 1935, he started to record bird-songs with the help of a tape recorder. The result was an amazing collection of recordings that Messiaen referred to as ‘my field library’ and which he used throughout his composing career.

The Needles of the Night was commissioned by the French Broadcasting Corporation (ORTF) in 1964 and first performed by Yvonne Loriod (piano) and Roger Désormière (conductor) on January 18, 1965, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, in Paris.

Messiaen described this piece as ‘a nocturnal symphony for piano and orchestra’, clearly pointing out that it is not a concerto in any sense. The solo part is far from virtuosic and does not display any kind of bravura or pianistic display whatsoever. It is rather about colour and sound painting than anything else. The soloist is mostly subdued but plays very important role nonetheless: it has to be in tune with the conductor, providing elements of

Messiaen was born in 1908 in Avignon, France. His father worked as a literature teacher at lycée (high school) and his mother was a poet and an amateur musician. Messiaen was the oldest of their three children; his sister, Jeanne-Clémence, was a pianist who later became a teacher of music history, and his brother, Pierre, later became an engineer.

Messiaen’s father died when he was only five years old. In 1914 Messiaen started taking piano lessons with Henri Büsser (a composer, pupil of Saint-Saëns). He also showed great interest in bird song and began writing his first compositions at the age of ten. He studied harmony with Charles d’Indy at Schola Cantorum in Paris from 1921-1924 and composition with Paul Dukas at Conservatoire de Paris from 1924-1929. During his time there he composed the pieces that would make him famous: Le Banquet Céleste for organ (1926), Le Fauconnier for orchestra (1927), and La Jeune France for orchestra (1929).

In 1929 he met Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (who would become his future wife

It is in this context that Messiaen’s music first began to appear. He had been working on a piece for flute, clarinet, violin and cello called ‘Les offrandes oubliées’ (1930), which contained passages of rhythmically free music (something he would explore at greater length during the 1940s) and his second complete piano cycle, ‘Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus’ (1944). The first performance of the latter work took place in December 1945 in Paris under the composer’s direction, with Yvonne Loriod as soloist. In January 1946 Messiaen travelled to Rome to take part in a festival of French music; while there he attended a performance of ‘Les offrandes oubliées’ and heard that same work performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Toscanini.

But it was not until 1954 that Messiaen first visited the United States and conducted his own music there. After his arrival in New York City he was interviewed for American television; the interview was later broadcast by CBS. He returned to the United States the year after and conducted concerts in New York City and Los Angeles

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was probably the most original and influential composer of the post-1945 period. He turned his back on the prevailing style of music in his younger days, Modernism, and developed a new language based on a synthesis of personal feelings and experiences and a wide variety of musical sources including Greek tragic modes, Indian classical music, Gregorian chant and blues.

Messiaen’s early works show the influence of Debussy, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. His improvisations at the organ as a young man were also highly influential. The first work to bring him to public attention was the Quartet for the End of Time, composed while he was a prisoner of war in Görlitz (Silesia). The premiere took place on January 15th 1941 in front of 400 fellow prisoners in the camp gymnasium.

Messiaen went on to become one of the most revered teachers in Paris at the Conservatoire where he taught from 1942 until his death in 1992. Amongst his many students were Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

He is credited with having introduced birdsong into Western art music, for example through transcriptions of flute solos in his

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) – Arnold Schoenberg was an Austrian composer of the Second Viennese School. He was a pioneer of atonality, and he is considered one of the most significant composers of the 20th century.

John Cage (1912-1992) – John Cage was an American composer best known for his 1952 composition, 4’33”, where musicians perform without playing any notes.

Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) – Karlheinz Stockhausen was a German composer who is often credited as “the most important composer to come out of post-war Europe”. He worked in many forms of music, including serialism, aleatoric music and electronic music.

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) – Iannis Xenakis was a Greek composer who used mathematical models to create unusual textures in his music. His compositions are often extremely complex and difficult to perform.

Pierre Boulez (b.1925) – Pierre Boulez is a French conductor and one of the most important composers to come out of post-war France. His early works were influenced by serialism and later he explored stochastic music

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

After his first visit to Paris in 1921, Copland was influenced by the French Impressionists and by Igor Stravinsky. He wrote music with clear structure and a strong individual voice. In the 1930s he experimented with jazz and other American folk music styles, producing works such as Billy the Kid (1938) and Appalachian Spring (1944). The latter won him the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

In 1950 he wrote Fanfare for the Common Man for brass and percussion, which became one of his best known works. He continued to write orchestral pieces including the opera The Tender Land (1954), Connotations for orchestra (1962) and Inscape (1967).

In the 1960s he developed an interest in electronic music and tape composition, writing Inscape in 1967, using an electronic device called a ring modulator.


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